Afghanistan has a reputation for being the Graveyard of Empires. This is much exaggerated because the region has been an integral part of a number of very successful empires. However, the western perspective is dominated by three things – the War in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 to 1989, and the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1839 to 1842.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Great Game was a competition between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for influence in Central Asia and South Asia during most of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. The British were very concerned that the Russians would invade British-controlled India through Afghanistan. Their concern intensified when Dost Mohammad Barakzai seized power from Shuja Shah Durrani. British efforts to exert influence over the former’s foreign policy backfired by convincing him to renew his relationship with the Russians. As a result, they decided to put Shuja Shah Durrani back on the throne.
Initially, the British intervention was very successful. However, it wasn’t too long before a number of factors caused the situation to worsen for them. One, the Afghans were less than enthused by the foreign occupation. Two, the Afghans didn’t like Shuja Shah Durrani, who was weak, cruel, and vindictive. Three, the British government stopped paying subsidies to the local tribes, with the unsurprising result that the local tribes promptly stopped being loyal to the British-controlled regime.
Eventually, Kabul revolted. Thanks to this, the position of the British garrison became more and more precarious until its leadership made the fateful decision to retreat to Jalalabad. Out of the 4,500 men plus the 12,000 civilians who accompanied them, Dr. William Brydon is reputed to have been the one individual to make it to their intended destination. Most of the rest were either killed through fighting or died through exposure and starvation.
Brydon himself lost a part of his skull because of a sword blow, having been pursued almost to the walls of Jalalabad.